`FALLING DOWN" begins with a traffic jam. And our hero, played by Michael Douglas, is stuck in it. His name is William Foster, although he's sometimes called "D-FENS" after his vanity license plate, and the movie's promotion has latched onto this as a way of making the story sound even more macho and exploitative than it is.
Bill is an ordinary guy with ordinary problems - like a broken marriage and a layoff from his job - until that traffic jam touches off extraordinary anger. He abandons his car and heads for home on foot, getting into fights with all kinds of irritating people along the way. It's a crazy thing to do, and sure enough, Bill appears to have lost his mind.
But has he really? Or could it be that his current difficulties have simply put him under too much stress? Or maybe - just maybe - his explosive condition could be considered a reasonable response to the malfunctions in today's society?
One problem with "Falling Down" is that it never makes up its mind what Bill's problem is. If the movie had selected one set of motivations for his behavior (or integrated all the motivations into a lucid and logical whole), it might have amounted to a clever analysis of a troubled personality, or a poignant lament for a broken family, or a telling indictment of city life.
As it stands, though, the picture is a jumble, willing to spice its story with anything good for a momentary thrill.
It's also a distasteful jumble that stirs up the worst instincts of its audience by heaping abuse on Bill, encouraging us to identify with him, then prodding us to enjoy his bursts of venom and violence. After all, the movie constantly hints, he's not half as bad as the people who keep irritating him.
Especially revealing about the film's lack of goodwill is the fact that many of its villains fit stereotypes right out of Hollywood's most racist and xenophobic mold. From a Korean storekeeper to Hispanic gang members, Bill's most memorable enemies are nonwhites with "funny" accents and hostile attitudes; even a homophobic anti-Semite who tries to befriend him is inspired by Hitler and "foreign" sources.
The movie offers token "balance" by including a smart Hispanic woman and a likable Japanese man among the cops who eventually track Bill down. But in most theaters, these "normal" characters won't erase the fearful and derisive responses the villains are designed to provoke from audiences.
Bill himself isn't overloaded with good instincts, for that matter. Once his adventure has begun, it takes very little to set him off on some kind of rampage. But the movie does pile terrible provocations on the poor fellow to make it easier for us to sympathize with him. Hispanic thugs, scary panhandlers, pushy construction workers, and other creeps are typical inhabitants of today's urban scene, the movie tells us, and they'd push anyone over the edge.
And of course Bill has individual problems, from his wife's hostility to his lack of employment. Perhaps we're meant to think of these as sad reflections of society's deep malaise, but again, the movie doesn't make any such point in a clear and coherent way. In the end, it just wants to stir up a ruckus on the screen and in the emotional responses of moviegoers.
Its attempt to pass itself off as social criticism is far from convincing, and makes the whole project seem completely cynical.
"Falling Down" has a few ingredients worth praising. These include thoughtful performances by Barbara Hershey and Tuesday Weld as the wives of the main characters; Rachel Ticotin as the Hispanic cop; and especially Robert Duvall as the police officer who realizes there's a method to Bill's madness.
Even here, though, the movie can't suppress its mean-spiritedness. At the preview screening I attended, the most applause came when Duvall's character stands up to his obviously troubled wife by telling her to shut up and cook supper. Add sexism to the movie's list of moral failings.
* "Falling Down" has an * rating. It contains a great deal of physical violence, emotional turbulence, and very vulgar language.